Scientists search for a universal coronavirus vaccine
The Covid-19 pandemic had barely begun when VBI Vaccines, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, initiated their search for a universal coronavirus vaccine.
It was March 2020, and while most pharmaceutical companies were scrambling to initiate vaccine programs which specifically targeted the SARS-CoV-2 virus, VBI’s executives were already keen to look at the broader picture.
Having observed the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks over the last two decades, Jeff Baxter, CEO of VBI Vaccines, was aware that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be the last coronavirus to move from an animal host into humans. “It's absolutely apparent that the future is to create a vaccine which gives more broad protection against not only pre-existing coronaviruses, but those that will potentially make the leap into humans in future,” says Baxter.
It was a prescient decision. Over the last two years, more biotechs and pharma companies have joined the search to find a vaccine which might be able to protect against all coronaviruses, along with dozens of academic research groups. Last September, the US National Institutes of Health dedicated $36 million specifically to pan-coronavirus vaccine research, while the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has earmarked $200 million towards the effort.
Until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be
theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. But then a groundbreaking study renewed optimism.
The emergence of new variants of Covid-19 over the past year, particularly the highly mutated Omicron variant, has added greater impetus to find broader spectrum vaccines. But until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. After all, scientists have spent decades trying to develop a similar vaccine for influenza with little success.
But then a groundbreaking study from renowned virologist Linfa Wang, who runs the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, provided renewed optimism.
Wang found that eight SARS survivors who had been injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine had neutralising antibodies in their blood against SARS, the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants of SARS-CoV-2, and five other coronaviruses which reside in bats and pangolins. He concluded that the combination of past coronavirus infection, and immunization with a messenger RNA vaccine, had resulted in a wider spectrum of protection than might have been expected.
“This is a significant study because it showed that pre-existing immunity to one coronavirus could help with the elicitation of cross-reactive antibodies when immunizing with a second coronavirus,” says Kevin Saunders, Director of Research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute in North Carolina, which is developing a universal coronavirus vaccine. “It provides a strategy to perhaps broaden the immune response against coronaviruses.”
In the next few months, some of the first data is set to emerge looking at whether this kind of antibody response could be elicited by a single universal coronavirus vaccine. In April 2021, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, launched a Phase I clinical trial of their vaccine, with a spokesman saying that it was successful, and the full results will be announced soon.
The Walter Reed researchers have already released preclinical data, testing the vaccine in non-human primates where it was found to have immunising capabilities against a range of Covid-19 variants as well as the original SARS virus. If the Phase I trial displays similar efficacy, a larger Phase II trial will begin later this year.
Two different approaches
Broadly speaking, scientists are taking two contrasting approaches to the task of finding a universal coronavirus vaccine. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, VBI Vaccines – who plan to launch their own clinical trial in the summer – and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute – who are launching a Phase I trial in early 2023 – are using a soccer-ball shaped ferritin nanoparticle studded with different coronavirus protein fragments.
VBI Vaccines is looking to elicit broader immune responses by combining SARS, SARS-CoV-2 and MERS spike proteins on the same nanoparticle. Dave Anderson, chief scientific officer at VBI Vaccines, explains that the idea is that by showing the immune system these three spike proteins at the same time, it can help train it to identify and respond to subtle differences between coronavirus strains.
The Duke Human Vaccine Institute is utilising the same method, but rather than including the entire spike proteins from different coronaviruses, they are only including the receptor binding domain (RBD) fragment from each spike protein. “We designed our vaccine to focus the immune system on a site of vulnerability for the virus, which is the receptor binding domain,” says Saunders. “Since the RBD is small, arraying multiple RBDs on a nanoparticle is a straight-forward approach. The goal is to generate immunity to many different subgenuses of viruses so that there will be cross-reactivity with new or unknown coronaviruses.”
But the other strategy is to create a vaccine which contains regions of the viral protein structure which are conserved between all coronavirus strains. This is something which scientists have tried to do for a universal influenza vaccine, but it is thought to be more feasible for coronaviruses because they mutate at a slower rate and are more constrained in the ways that they can evolve.
DIOSynVax, a biotech based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, announced in a press release earlier this month that they are partnering with CEPI to use their computational predictive modelling techniques to identify common structures between all of the SARS coronaviruses which do not mutate, and thus present good vaccine targets.
Stephen Zeichner, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, has created an early stage vaccine using the fusion peptide region – another part of the coronavirus spike protein that aids the virus’s entry into host cells – which so far appears to be highly conserved between all coronaviruses.
So far Zeichner has trialled this version of the vaccine in pigs, where it provided protection against a different coronavirus called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which he described as very promising as this virus is from a different family called alphacoronaviruses, while SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus.
“If a betacoronavirus fusion peptide vaccine designed from SARS-CoV-2 can protect pigs against clinical disease from an alphacoronavirus, then that suggests that an analogous vaccine would enable broad protection against many, many different coronaviruses,” he says.
The road ahead
But while some of the early stage results are promising, researchers are fully aware of the scale of the challenge ahead of them. Although CEPI have declared an aim of having a licensed universal coronavirus vaccine available by 2024-2025, Zeichner says that such timelines are ambitious in the extreme.
“I was incredibly impressed at the speed at which the mRNA coronavirus vaccines were developed for SARS-CoV-2,” he says. “That was faster than just about anybody anticipated. On the other hand, I think a universal coronavirus vaccine is more equivalent to the challenge of developing an HIV vaccine and we're 35 years into that effort without success. We know a lot more now than before, and maybe it will be easier than we think. But I think the route to a universal vaccine is harder than an individual vaccine, so I wouldn’t want to put money on a timeline prediction.”
The major challenge for scientists is essentially designing a vaccine for a future threat which is not even here yet. As such, there are no guidelines on what safety data would be required to license such a vaccine, and how researchers can demonstrate that it truly provides efficacy against all coronaviruses, even those which have not yet jumped to humans.
The teams working on this problem have already devised some ingenious ways of approaching the challenge. VBI Vaccines have taken the genetic sequences of different coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins, from publicly available databases, and inserted them into what virologists call a pseudotype virus – one which has been engineered so it does not have enough genetic material to replicate.
This has allowed them to test the neutralising antibodies that their vaccine produces against these coronaviruses in test tubes, under safe lab conditions. “We have literally just been ordering the sequences, and making synthetic viruses that we can use to test the antibody responses,” says Anderson.
However, some scientists feel that going straight to a universal coronavirus vaccine is likely to be too complex. Instead they say that we should aim for vaccines which are a little more specific. Pamela Bjorkman, a structural biologist at the California Institute of Technology, suggests that pan-coronavirus vaccines which protect against SARS-like betacoronaviruses such as SARS or SARS-CoV-2, or MERS-like betacoronaviruses, may be more realistic.
“I think a vaccine to protect against all coronaviruses is likely impossible since there are so many varieties,” she says. “Perhaps trying to narrow down the scope is advisable.”
But if the mission to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine does succeed, it will be one of the most remarkable feats in the annals of medical science. In January, US chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci urged for greater efforts to be devoted towards this goal, one which scientists feel would be the biological equivalent of the race to develop the first atomic bomb
“The development of an effective universal coronavirus vaccine would be equally groundbreaking, as it would have global applicability and utility,” says Saunders. “Coronaviruses have caused multiple deadly outbreaks, and it is likely that another outbreak will occur. Having a vaccine that prevents death from a future outbreak would be a tremendous achievement in global health.”
He agrees that it will require creativity on a remarkable scale: “The universal coronavirus vaccine will also require ingenuity and perseverance comparable to that needed for the Manhattan project.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.